Just as January is synonymous with the latest run of Father Brown episodes on daytime BBC, so February is becoming associated with the return of Shakespeare & Hathaway – Private Investigators, which is now in its third season. Somewhat more light-hearted and comedic than its clerical stable mate (which itself hardly takes things too seriously, even when it comes to murder) it certainly seems that the show co-created by Father Brown writing alumni Jude Tindall and Paul Matthew Thompson has managed to develop its own faithful following meaning that it has been renewed for not just this latest run, but also at least one more to follow in 2021.
That’s largely thanks to a likeable cast, headed by Mark Benton as Frank Hathaway. Looking noticeably more kempt this time than in past seasons (where he often looked as though he’d spent the previous night sleeping under a railway bridge), he’s a former senior police officer in Stratford-upon-Avan who now runs a private detective agency with his sleuthing partner Luella Shakespeare, a former hairdresser played by Jo Joyner. Also returning for the latest run is Patrick Walshe McBride (recently glimpsed in the BBC’s new Dracula adaptation) as their office manager and perennially out-of-work actor Sebastian Brudenell, who gets to put his RADA training to good use anytime a touch of undercover surveillance is required.
Sadly it seems that Frank’s former police colleague Detective Inspector Christina Marlowe (Amber Aga) has moved on after being seconded on an indefinite basis to a special task force. That promotes the obstructive Detective Sergeant Keeler (Tomos Eames) to the full-time position of the show’s main police presence, after recurring as Marlowe’s sulky sidekick in seasons 1 and 2. In her place, Yasmin Kaur Barn joins the cast as junior PC Viola Deacon who is rather more amenable and helpful towards Frank and the team (and Sebastian in particular) than Keeler. There’s also a one-off return appearance from Roberta Taylor as Sebastian’s landlady Gloria Fonteyn, who runs a useful theatrical costumiers.
With little more to add to observations from previous seasons, let’s get straight on with a look at the new episodes comprising the 2020 season, which begin with a brief top-level synopsis of the story. The accompanying ‘Notes’ section then gives a short review and inevitably reveals some details of the episode in question that you may wish to avoid until after viewing. However you can be assured that we would never be so crass as to give away actual whodunnits!
1 “How the Rogue Roar’d” by Matthew Cooke (3 February 2020
Frank and Lu are hired by a local property developer (the superbly named Henrietta Bolingbroke, played by Blakes 7 star Josette Simon) to dig up dirt on a local bingo hall so that she can force the owner to sell up. But a violent death changes the game, and Frank is certain that he knows who the killer is: ex-con Eddie Monmouth (Jim Moir, aka Vic Reeves) the man he put in jail for armed robbery eight years ago. Is he right, or is he being too blinkered?
Notes: The curtain goes up on the new series with an appropriate shot of The Globe Theatre, before launching into a flashback showing Frank’s original unconventional arrest of Monmouth. After that it’s the usual blend of gentle humour and mild whodunnit. Despite the bingo hall setting it’s actually rather a strong story, throwing up lots of unexpected red herrings and seemingly clearing some suspects before doubling back to the solution. The solution is far from a complete surprise, but at the same time it’s rather more satisfying than usual. It’s interesting so see Keeler stepping up into a more prominent role following Marlowe’s abrupt departure, while the inevitable feel-good final scene between Frank and Eddie on the river bank is a perfect way to welcome the show back to our screens. I was rather charmed by it, to be honest.
2 “See Thyself, Devil!” by Ed Sellek (4 February 2020
Heavy rock icon Tony King (David Schofield) is planning a comeback, but after a series of attempts on his life he fears that the literal deal with the devil that he and his band Caliban’s Claw signed in blood to secure their original success has become due. Long-time fan Frank is hired to find out if there really is something satanic behind it all or whether the threat is closer to home, in a case which proves to have a strong personal connection to Gloria.
Notes: You’d think it would be hard to manage to lampoon Ozzy Osbourne’s distinctively addled public persona, but this episode goes to great lengths to do just that. Inevitably as a result it dials up the amp on the humour well beyond 11, with Sebastian stealing scenes posing as a heavy metal magazine journalist complete with goth makeup and a dodgy Scandi accent. And yet despite the slightly painful jocularity, this actually turns out to have an interesting story under the surface, especially as Frank and Lu look into the past to investigate a traffic accident that originally split the band up several years previously. Once again, evidence that this season’s stories underneath the comedy are proving stronger and sharper.
3 “The Sticking Place” by Johanne McAndrew (5 February 2020
A new estate manager (This Life’s Steve John Shepherd) decides to evict a group of local allotment holders (among them guest star Christopher Timothy) in order to facilitate a new development. They turn to Frank and Lu to ‘dig up some dirt’ to help delay being thrown out, but the discovery of a dead body starts an investigation that soon reveals no one is quite who they’re pretending to be.
Notes: Frank’s sudden bout of sciatica leads to some fun with the allotment’s inevitable powerful ‘herbal remedies’ but in general this is a slightly more serious, heads-down investigation with some neat twists and a really strong guest cast that also includes Poirot regular Philip Jackson as the Carson-esque head butler at the country home of Lady Tatiana Mortimer (Sara Stewart). The story twists and turns nicely, and while you’re always likely to know the general shape of where it’s all going, you’re probably in for a bit of a surprise about whodunnit with a nice touch of misdirection keeping several possible outcomes on the cards all the way to the finish.
4 “A Serpent’s Tooth” by Ishy Din (6 February 2020
Frank and Lu have a suspicious death to investigate, after a sales rep at a local family-owned carpet warehouse is killed in an apparent after hours accident. What was he doing there at such a late hour, and what did he uncover that led to someone deciding it was necessary to silence him?
Notes: Even more than the previous episode, this is a strangely downbeat, almost melancholic affair. Any humorous touches mainly come from character beats such as Lu dressing up in all-black for a clandestine nighttime raid, but then topping it off with a hot pink overcoat when she decides it’s too cold. The story as a whole has a decidedly Shakespearian feel with the tragedy of King Lear clearly evident in the family set-up, which sees the patriarch suffering from dementia and splitting his carpet kingdom among his three daughters who are soon at odds against one another. There’s not much of a whodunnit to this one – there’s really only one viable suspect from the start – but there’s definite interest in getting to the heart of the mystery. Lu and Frank are shown to be doing some solid investigating, while Sebastian gets a sidekick of his own for his latest surveillance operation which proves rather sweet.
5 “The Fury Spent” by Kitty Percy (7 February 2020
The curator of a local museum goes missing during the launch of a new exhibition when it’s disrupted by a local pressure group protesting about the under representation of women in history. Frank and Lu go to work and soon discover the missing person, only to then become embroiled in the violent death of their employer who is the museum’s director. How are the two cases linked?
Notes: After a couple of relatively serious cases, it’s time for some broad comedy. The tone is set by oversize performances from the guest cast which includes Simon Williams, Diana Hardcastle and in particular Josie Lawrence going full sitcom. The regulars are also in it for the laughs, with Lu on a health kick, Sebastian suffering from cat allergies, Frank exasperated by Lu’s ten-point turn and Keeler having to deal with an outbreak of “I’m Spartacus”-esque false confessions from the protestors. The plot itself is stop-start and fragmented, proceeding at a plodding pace that prevents it from exerting much of a grip. The investigation seems more rambling and bumbling than usual especially coming on the heels of some genuinely solid work from the team in the preceding episodes. Probably just as well it’s a Friday outing to allow everyone to head off and recharge their batteries over the weekend.
6 “Reputation, Reputation, Reputation!” by Daisy Martey (10 February 2020
A suspicious fire at a local hair salon leaves one employee critically injured, and sees Lu returning to her roots to see whether it was deliberate and which of her former colleagues (including guest star Don Gilet) might be behind it.
Notes: It’s actually rather nice to see the show spend time looking into Lu’s past and her former career before she joined up with Frank, and her inside knowledge of the business and the people involved makes her the star player here. The episode could have had a field day sending up the world of hair styling – and the script certainly throws in every bit of soapy backbiting, catty insults, industrial quantities of blackmailing and copious illicit affairs to the point where it makes Dallas and Dynasty look positively sedate – but the end result is actually quite nicely layered with enough actual drama and pathos to feel more substantial than mere send-up. Inevitably there are some comedy hair styles along the way for Lu (who escapes quite lightly) and Sebastian (who really doesn’t).
7 “Best Beware My Sting” by Dominique Moloney (11 February 2020
After receiving threats from a radical environmental protest group, energy tycoon Gordon Minola hires Frank and Lu to provide extra security at his daughter Bianca’s wedding. All goes well until the bride and groom go missing during the horse-and-carriage ride from church to reception. Is Bianca’s rebellious older sister Kate involved in the abduction?
Notes: There’s some fun early in the episode with Frank and Lu’s attempts to tame the shrewish Kate who has a habit of throwing things at anyone she doesn’t like. However things take a decidedly serious turn once the abduction kicks in. Right away there’s a sense that things are not quite what they appear to be, in a relatively serious and intricate plot that is hard to out-guess before the end. For a series that generally leans to the lighter-hearted end of the spectrum it’s unusual to end up with such a cold blooded psychopathic killer, but fortunately Sebastian provides some levity with his distaste of an enforced undercover stay at a local commune – which sees him ending up getting arrested, much to Keeler’s delight.
8 “All That Glisters” by Rob Kinsman (12 February 2020
True crime podcaster Emilia (Home Fires‘ Daisy Badger) asks the team to investigate a case that’s too close to her: the disappearance of her mother 20 years ago, for which she blames her father. It leads Frank and Lu to investigate a secretive group of enigmatologists (puzzle setters) – one of whom soon winds up dead in the local park.
Notes: Not one of the better episodes of the season, in part because Emilia is initially too naive and then too quick to give up to be convincing as a crack podcast reporter; and also because the genius group of puzzlers are drawn as broad comedy caricatures, one of whom should really have been played by Friday Night Dinner‘s Mark Heap. The treasure hunt aspect – which Frank and Lu prove surprisingly adept at – should have worked well but instead relies on fictional local knowledge that leaves the viewers as a passive audience. The attempts at humour also generally fall flat, with Sebastian positively annoying as he continually attempts to muscle his way into a starring role on the podcast, and Frank is little better. Ultimately it turns out to be quite a sad episode, in which pretty much everyone loses out. Incidentally, the Shakespeare-inspired title for this episode is a quote from “The Merchant of Venice”, the play I had to study at school for English Literature. Happy days! As a result I was more alert to the usual quips and riffs off the play and how they inspired character names including Belmont, Nerissa, Bassanio and Gratiano; but strangely the story itself seemed to take almost nothing at all from the Bard’s original plot.
9 “O Thou Invisible Spirit of Wine” by Oliver Frampton (13 February 2020
Frank and Lu are called in to retrieve a stolen heirloom and find themselves in the middle of a generations-spanning feud between two families: the Montagues who run the Barchester Arms public house; and the Capulets (headed by Silent Witness regular Richard Lintern) who own the building and the land, and who want their annoying tenants out. Complicating matters is the apparent haunting of the pub by one of the Montague’s ancestors, with spiritualist Penelope Lawrence (played by comedian Rosie Jones) on hand for a ‘ghosthunter’-tyre reality show. It’s all quite a lark, at least until someone ends up crossing over to the other side for real.
Notes: You don’t need to be a Shakespeare scholar to spot all the references to “Romeo and Juliet” in this episode. Unlike the previous outing, the allusions extend beyond just cribbing a few names and even include an unexpected pair of star-crossed lovers (with a modern twist). But the haunted house aspect also means that the story owes nearly as much to Scooby-Doo! as to the Bard, so much so that when the guilty party is hauled away by the police the script misses a trick by not having him protest that “I would have got away with it if not for you meddling private investigators!” The best part is Frank and Lu accidentally deconstructing the mechanics of the ‘haunting’ as they bumble around the pub, but the whodunnit is always painfully obvious and it’s just as well that the search for a missing (and possibly non-existent) land deed provides the true mystery and intrigue.
10 “Teach Me, Dear Creature” by Dan Muirden (14 February 2020
Overprotective mother Jessica Duke (EastEnders/New Tricks star Tamzin Outhwaite) is concerned that her son Charlie is going off the rails and failing to follow in the footsteps of his practically perfect sister, the high-achieving Isabella. Frank and Lu’s investigation suggests an illicit relationship between Charlie and an English teacher at a prestigious local private tuition centre, but the domestic drama is disrupted by the discovery of a dead body at the kitchen table. Meanwhile, Sebastian is reunited with Rory, a former RADA classmate who has achieved the sort of acting success he himself has always dreamed of – leaving him taking a long hard look about the state of his life.
Notes: Right from the start of this brisk and efficient case we’re looking forward to the comeuppance of the insufferable helicopter mom who has been spying on her children in microscopic detail. We do indeed get that pay-off, although it’s not exactly in the manner expected at the start; and the real surprise is how early in the episode it comes, leaving a good ten minutes of the running time still to go. That’s because the real focus of the episode is Sebastian and his existential crisis after meeting up with Rory, who turns out to be annoyingly rather nice and helpful to the investigation, and not the insufferably preening star he could have been. It’s not much of a surprise when the obvious direction of travel of the episode results in Sebastian getting an unexpected chance to prove himself on stage, but that opens up a big problem when it leads to the acting chance of a lifetime. It’s a credit to the importance of the character (and performer) to the format and success of Shakespeare and Hathaway that the prospect of Sebastian departing is a genuine shock. It’s all rather affecting when he decides to pack his bags and say his goodbyes, making for an effective and really rather strong ending to what’s proven to be an entertaining third season of BBC daytime’s growing afternoon hit.
Overall series rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
The third season of Shakespeare & Hathaway – Private Investigators aired on weekdays on BBC One at 2.15pm in February 2020. All episodes are available indefinitely in the UK on BBC iPlayer, with the full series also set to be released around March 23, 2020 on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK in April.